June 28, 2012 | Review Period

Grammatical Problems in Grammar Books?

Questions for experts in Italian, French, and/or German.

I am continuing to read news from around the world, as accompaniment for my stingy little single shot of espresso in the morning.

But I am still studying grammar, too, and I am perplexed by some things I have come across in my grammar books. I will list them below.

My Caffeine-to-Grammar Ratio: Way Down

My Caffeine-to-Grammar Ratio: Way Down

First: in her book Italian Pronouns and Prepositions, Daniela Gobetti offers this Italian sentence: Molte favole mi ha raccontato la nonna, le quali erano divertenti e istruttive.

This is translated as follows: “My grandmother told me many fables, which were entertaining and instructive.”

My question is: can that Italian sentence possibly be considered good Italian? English and Italian are not so different in fundamental ways. 

In the Italian version, the word for “fables”—favole—is right at the head of the sentence, so that a more literal translation would be, “Many fables told me my grandmother, which were entertaining and instructive.” My instinct tells me that in Italian, as in English, it is not good form to separate the relative clause (“le quali…istruttive”) syntactically from the noun it describes. I would welcome comments from fluent speakers of Italian.

You never know what oddities lurk within an unknown tongue, but for now I remain suspicious of this sentence.

Second issue: Annie Heminway, in The French Subjunctive Up Close, translates “Faustine does not dispute the fact that you’re intelligent” as follows:

Faustine ne conteste pas que vous soyez intelligent(e).

Is that correct? I thought because of the certainty of the intelligence (it is not disputed, after all) that you would pick indicative, meaning êtes. But maybe this is a special circumstance that I am forgetting about. Ms. Hemingway seems quite reliable.

My third question concerns German. In Ed Swick’s Complete German Grammar, I am given a question: Wofür hat sich der Wissenschaftler interessiert? Then I am asked to rewrite the question, using this introductory statement to open it: Jemand fragte,…

I wrote, Jemand fragte, wofür der Wissenschaftler sich interessiert hat. (Someone asked what the scientist was interested in.)

The answer key had, Jemand fragte, wofür sich der Wissenschaftler interessiert hat.

That surprised me. I did not remember that as a legitimate position for the reflexive pronoun. Is that correct, and do I have no choice in the sich placement matter, German speakers?

Fourth and final issue (for the moment): Mr. Swick opens Chapter 22 with the statement, “Double infinitives are not used in English.” This chapter focuses on modals, which are definitely  a special case in German involving consecutive infinitives in a way one would not see in English, but is this statement actually accurate?

In the sentence “He should want to behave,” wouldn’t both of those verbs after the auxiliary “should” be infinitive forms? You do not need to have the “to” to have an infinitive in English. “Want” is an unconjugated form,” followed by the infinitive “to behave.” That seems double infinitivish to me.

Comments (2)

Tim • Posted on Wed, August 01, 2012 - 9:21 pm EST

I would like to try to climb Mt. Everest, but I would have to exercise to get in better shape.

I’m not sure about your examples from other languages, but it is probably worth remembering that the phenomenon of experts being mistaken is not unique to language teaching.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, August 01, 2012 - 9:32 pm EST

On experts: yep, that’s for sure, Tim. And really, I don’t mean to come across as too nitpicky; it is hard to write a good grammar book without some mistakes. These are just issues that I was wondering about.

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